The mass exodus took place in Shahebganj-Bagda farm areas, which fall under the Rangpur Sugar Mill in Gobindaganj upazila of Gaibandha district.
Indigenous community leaders said around 1,000 to 1,200 families had moved to nearby villages after mass looting took place.
"The Santal households were looted of their meager valuables - domestic animals and crops - from their makeshift houses from morning till noon in the presence of law enforcers,” the Jatiya Adibasi Parishad President, Rabindranath Soren, told the Dhaka Tribune on Sunday evening.
Earlier, a deadly clash took place after Santals from Sahebganj-Bagda farm in Gaibandha chased a group of Rangpur Sugar Mill staff who came to reap sugarcane in the mill’s plantation area on Sunday morning.
Rabindranath Soren and Philimon Baske - who is vice-president of the farm's Bhumi Uddhar Sangram Committee - told the Dhaka Tribune that their people then attacked the police with bows and arrows, with law enforcers using live rounds in response.
Nine police officers were hit by arrows and four Santals were shot - one fatally.
Shyamol Soren, 35, was pronounced dead when his bullet-riddled body arrived at Dinajpur Medical College Hospital. His corpse remained unclaimed on Monday evening and was being kept at the morgue after its post-mortem, said Dinajpur’s Kotwali Police Station Officer in-Charge Redwanur Rahim.
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The three Santals left injured in the clash - Dijen Tutu, Choron Soren and Bimol Kishku - were undergoing treatment at Rangpur Medical College Hospital.
Long-standing land dispute
Santals are one of the oldest and largest indigenous tribes in northwestern Bangladesh but in Gaibandha the community has been in a long dispute over land since the Rangpur Sugar Mill authorities started leasing plots for cultivation of rice and other crops.
This violates the contract agreed under the then Pakistan government, which acquired 1,842 acres of land from Santals for the mill on the understanding that only sugar cane would be farmed there and the land would be returned to the original owners if it was used for any other purposes.
According to the indigenous leaders, the mill authorities have been allowing tobacco and rice farming on the land "for years". As the contract was violated, indigenous Santal people and some Bangali locals began fourth months ago to occupy around 100 acres of land, building makeshift houses there and demanding return of their lands that belonged to their forefathers.
Local sources at Gobindaganj said the mill was closed from 2003 to 2008, but came into partial operation from the end of 2008.
“The mill opened on condition that the leasers will have to harvest at least 10% as sugarcane while other products can be harvested in the remaining 90% of the space. This was a violation of law,” said a source.
Leases were reportedly given to local influential political and affluent people, including Katabari No.2 union chairman Rezaul Karim Rafiq and Liton Hossain Chowdhury, the younger brother of former MP Monowar Hossain Chowdhury.
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During the Dhaka Tribune's visit, Santals living in the area alleged to our correspondent that the local people who came with the police looted their valuables, including the tin and bamboo of their makeshift houses, along with domestic cattle.
Many indigenous people then fled the area after a case was filed by Gobindaganj Police Station sub-inspector Kalyan Chakraborty against 350 people, including 38 named ones, on Sunday night.
“This is the biggest combined movement of common people since the Phulbari’s tragic incident,” researcher Pavel Partha told the Dhaka Tribune.
Pavel added that the leasing of land by mill authorities for harvesting products other than sugar cane like fish, maize, and other products showed a clear breach of contract.
Rangpur Sugar Mill managing director Abdul Awal, however, claimed that the allegations of the Santals were "baseless and unfounded".
“The mill will reopen from December this year and we were harvesting sugarcane as a preparation. When our contractor went to the land for cutting crops, the local people protested and attacked our staff,” he claimed.
“Following government rule, the authorities lease the land to well-off people of the area. We can do that,” said Abdul. “If the mill breaches any terms of the contract, the land should be reclaimed by the government, not by the locals. But the Santals have illegally occupied the land of the sugar mill.”
'Ethical' stance of Santals
Philimon Baske told the Dhaka Tribune the land reclamation movement is not led by any one figure, rather it is motivated purely by an ethical stance.
“The sugar mill authorities made an agreement with the original landowners that the land would be returned if any crops other than sugar cane is farmed. They have been producing rice and tobacco for quite some time now.”
“Despite breaching the terms they set themselves, they (authorities) refuse to return the land, so we had no choice but to occupy it,” he added. “We want our land back, as the authorities violated the contract."
Our Gaibandha correspondent Tajul Islam Reza and Dinajpur correspondent Bipul Sarker Sunny contributed to this report.